Why have rainforest fires in the Amazon sparked global concerns?

Q&A: A record number of wildfires across Brazil, with 84% increase on last year

Indigenous people from the Mura tribe show a deforested area in unmarked indigenous lands inside the Amazon rainforest near Humaita, Amazonas State, Brazil. Photograph:  Reuters

Indigenous people from the Mura tribe show a deforested area in unmarked indigenous lands inside the Amazon rainforest near Humaita, Amazonas State, Brazil. Photograph: Reuters

 

Raging fires in the Amazon rainforest – known as “the lungs of the planet” – have sparked global concerns.

Brazilian federal experts reported a record number of wildfires across the country this year, up 84 per cent over the same period in 2018. But why has this happened and what does it mean for all of us?

Are there usually many fires in the Amazon and has there really been more this year?

Amazon fires are a common occurrence, Greenpeace UK spokeswoman Alison Kirkman said. But she added that there has been a “huge” increase this year.

Her view is backed by Mike Barrett, executive director of conservation and science at WWF UK, who said the fires this year are “certainly worse than normal”.

“We’ve seen over 70,000 fires now already this year which is nearly double what we saw in the same period last year.”

But why have there been more fires this year?

The fires are “part of a broader renewed assault on the Amazon”, according to Mr Barrett, who said this is driven by deforestation. He says fire is being used to clear land in order to graze cattle, grow crops and so on. And there is a political angle.

“The reason why this is higher than before I think it’s very clear that there has been a change in the political rhetoric within Brazil, and that has led to those who wish to deforest feeling empowered to do so,” Mr Barrett said.

Ms Kirkman said Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s policies encourage farmers to expand their businesses and grow more crops.

Why is the Amazon known as “the lungs of the planet”?

The Amazon is a vast ecosystem and the biggest living carbon store on the planet, Mr Barrett pointed out. It therefore has a huge role to play in regulating the environment of the entire planet.

Trees take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it within the plant body and within the soil.

“Because of the size of the Amazon, the Amazon actually stores more carbon than any other living body, any other living ecosystem on the planet, so that’s why it plays such a crucial role in tackling climate change. If we lose the Amazon then we will almost certainly lose the fight against climate change,” Mr Barrett said.

The Amazon provides 20 per cent of the planet’s oxygen, Ms Kirkman said.

“So this really is an issue that impacts all of us, and it’s something that we can all do something about. It’s something that we should all be really concerned about.”

How have world leaders reacted to the fires?

French president Emmanuel Macron called the wildfires an international crisis, while German chancellor Angela Merkel views the fires as “shocking and threatening”.

British prime minister Boris Johnson is “deeply concerned” about the increase in fires, and has vowed to use the G7 to “call for a renewed focus on protecting nature”.

But Mr Bolsonaro has hit back at his critics, accusing Mr Macron on Twitter of using a “sensationalist tone” that “does nothing to solve the problem”.

Why should the world be concerned?

Around 20 per cent of the Amazon has already been lost and scientists now believe that just losing another 5 per cent would be sufficient to tip the Amazon into a sort of “unstable state within which it becomes impossible to actually restore it”, Mr Barrett said.

He said it matters locally and globally.

“If the Amazon ceases to be a functioning ecosystem, ceases to be the lungs of the planet, it is essentially impossible to see how we avoid dangerous climate change at a global level,” he said.

Ms Kirkman said forests are our “greatest defence against climate change”.

What can people do to help?

One way people can make a difference to climate change is by eating less meat, according to Ms Kirkman.

“The fact is we cannot continue consuming meat at the rate that we do,” she said. Mr Barrett said if people switched to more plant-based protein, away from meat-based protein, it would certainly have a positive impact.

Could governments and businesses also help out?

Mr Barrett pointed out the key role governments play.

“I think it’s incumbent on all the major economies who are trading with Brazil and make sure that we use our trade for good and not for bad. So thinking about trade deals for Brazil, setting high environmental standards that ensure that deforesting commodities don’t enter supply chains and are not imported by major economies like ourselves. It’s absolutely crucial,” he said.

Mr Barrett said the G7 has an opportunity to “send a really powerful message to Brazil”. He also said businesses have a responsibility to ensure that they are not purchasing commodities that are grown on deforested land.

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